The Labour leadership election: a high leverage, time-limited opportunity for impact (*1 week left to register for a vote*)

by HaydnBelfield4 min read12th Jan 202021 comments

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It’s generally accepted among effective altruists that voting in national elections is a valuable thing to do. This post argues that the same logic means that participating in party leadership contests has an even higher expected value. The costs of participating are extremely small, and the odds of having a decisive impact are far higher than for a national election.

Edit: This argument applies across the political spectrum. One of the best arguments for political party participation is similar to voting i.e. getting a say in the handful of leading political figures. We recommend that effective altruists consider this as a reason to join the party they are politically sympathetic towards in expectation of voting in future leadership contests. We're involved in the Labour Party - and Labour currently has a leadership election with only a week left to register to participate. So this post focuses on that as an example, and with a hope that if you're Labour-sympathetic you consider registering to participate. We definitely do not suggest registering to participate if you're not Labour-sympathetic. Don't be a 'hit and run entryist' (Thanks Greg for the comments!).

Example: The Labour leadership election

For example, for just £4.38, you could be one of around 500,000 individuals who could play a decisive role in the upcoming Labour leadership contest.

We believe that, if you're a UK citizen or have lived in the UK for the last year, you should pay £4.38 to register to vote in the current Labour leadership, so you can help decide 1 of the 2 next candidates for Prime Minister. This vote will also impact on which party is in government, and the likelihood of either the Conservatives or Labour being in government.

This is a time limited opportunity for highly leveraged impact. Only people who register by joining the Labour Party by 20 January can vote in the leadership campaign. For £4.38, you have a reasonable chance of determining the next candidate PM, and therefore having an impact in the order of billions of pounds.

Why?

We assume you are persuaded by the standard effective altruist view in favour of voting, as argued by e.g. 80,000 Hours or Will MacAskill in Doing Good Better, and based in decision theory and political science literature. Briefly, you have a small chance to be the deciding vote between options with a large difference in impact, so in expected value it is worth your time.

(This is not a thought experiment. In the 2017 Virginia House of Delegates election, a single vote would have flipped the state legislature from Republican to no overall control, leading to a potentially significantly different set of policy decisions [1].)

The argument is even more persuasive for voting in a leadership election, as the chance of influencing the outcome is much greater and the impact is the same.

Chance

In a General Election, you are one vote in tens of millions, e.g. 1 in 32 million at the 2019 General Election. And most people live in safe seats where their vote doesn't make a difference. Even so, it's still worth voting! But your vote is worth even more in a selection. In this selection, you are one vote in hundreds of thousands, e.g. in the 2016 Labour Leadership Election you would have been 1 in ~506,000, and your view is counted equally to everyone else's. Labour uses an alternative vote system where if your candidate is knocked out, your vote goes to your second preference (and so on) - so your vote is even more valuable.

Impact

Differences between candidate Prime Ministers are huge. Some are drastically more likely to become PM than others. And different PMs can have drastically different impact.

For an effective altruist, that can be the difference between billions of pounds of effectively spent foreign aid or not. The difference between much more humane animal farming legislation and not. Serious funding and international effort in climate change, nuclear weapons, emerging technological risks (like AI and bio) or not. Even if you’re unsure which of the candidates stand on these issues, you have the three month campaign period to find out more - and who if anyone deserves your vote.

Model

A toy model is imagine you have a 1/500,000 chance of being the deciding vote, and the difference in impact was £1bn. The expected value of a vote would be £2000. This is 10x the cost of membership. Note these assumptions are incredibly conservative.

How?

Joining the party is the easiest way to register to vote in the leadership election [2] . You can do so by filling in a form on the Labour Party website. The deadline to join as a member if you want to be eligible to vote in the leadership election is 5pm on the 20th of January.

You can always cancel your membership (though of course I'd rather you'd stay a member). The easiest way to do so is just by cancelling your direct debit and waiting until your membership is revoked. See the New Statesman site for more options. Edit: We're certainly not advocating joining just to cancel - we're saying you're not bound in if you change your mind.

Written by a UK group of people involved in the Labour Party and effective altruism. Any questions? If you'd like to discuss Labour and effective altruism, please contact David Lawrence at dc_lawrence[at sign]icloud.com


[1] Out of 100 seats, The Republicans had already won 50 seats and the Democrats 49 seats. Republican David Yancey and Democrat Shelly Simonds both received 11,608 votes and were forced to go to a tie-breaker, where David Yancey won, leaving the Republicans with 51 seats, a 2-seat majority. A single vote for Shelly Simonds would have led to a 50-50 split in the legislature and therefore power-sharing between the two parties, leading to a potentially significantly different set of policy decisions. See Vox.

[2] There are other ways to register for a vote. The other options are to become a Registered Supporter, or join a group affiliated to the Labour Party: either a Socialist Society or an affiliated trade union.

Becoming a Registered Supporter will cost £25 (at least £20.5 more than becoming a member). Applications to become a registered supporter will open at 5pm on the 14th of January and only be open for 48 hours, until 5pm on the 16th of January.

You can also join an affiliated group and become an Affiliated Supporter.

One option is to join one of the Socialist Societies which include the Fabian Society, the Jewish Labour Movement, SERA (Labour’s Environmental Campaign) etc. The Fabian Society is likely to be the cheapest short-term option, with a standard membership costing £4.90/month and £2.50/month for under 21s, students, the unwaged and retired.

You can also join one of the trade unions affiliated to the Labour Party. These include the three biggest trade unions in the UK: Unison, Unite, and GMB. The latter two, Unite and GMB, are open to those working in any profession and have types of membership available for the unemployed, students and retired. Membership rates will depend on your circumstances but appear to be ~£14-15/month for those in full-time work.

For both of these options, after you join the Socialist Society or a trade union, you will then need to register as an Affiliated Supporter by 5pm on Monday 3 February, which you can do here.

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I'm not a huge fan of schemes like this, as it seems the path to impact relies upon strategic defection of various implicit norms.

Whether or not political party membership asks one to make some sort of political declaration, the spirit of membership is surely meant for those who sincerely intend to support the politics of the party in question.

I don't think Labour members (perhaps authors of this post excluded) or leadership would want to sell a vote for their future leader at £4.38 each to anyone willing to fill out an application form - especially to those indifferent or hostile to Labour Party politics. That we can buy one anyway (i.e. sign up then leave a month later) suggests we do so by taking advantage of their good faith: that folks signing up aren't just doing it to get a vote on the leadership election, that they intend to stick around for a while, that they'll generally vote for and support Labour, etc.

If this 'hit and run entryism' became a common tactic (e.g. suppose 'tactical tories' pretended to defect from the Conservatives this month to vote for the Labour candidate the Conservatives wanted to face in the next election) we would see parties act to close this vulnerability (I think the Conservatives did something like this in terms of restricting eligible members to those joining before a certain date for their most recent leadership contest).

I'd also guess that ongoing attempts to 'game' this sort of thing is bad for the broader political climate, as (as best as I can tell) a lot of it runs on trust rather than being carefully proofed against canny selectoral tactics (e.g. although all parties state you shouldn't be a member of more than one at a time, I'm guessing it isn't that hard to 'get away with it'). Perhaps leader selection is too important to justly leave to only party members (perhaps there should be 'open primaries'), but 'hit and run entryism' seems very unlikely to drive one towards this, but merely greater barriers to entry for party political participation, and lingering suspicion and mistrust.

I strongly agree with both this specific sentiment and the general attitude that generates sentiments like this.

However, I think it's worth pointing out that you don't have to agree with the Labour Party's current positions, or think that it's doing a good job, to be a good (honest) member. I think as long as you sincerely wish the party to perform well in elections or have more influence, even if you hope to achieve that by nudging its policy platform or general strategy in a different direction from the current one, then I wouldn't think you were being entryist or dishonest by joining.

(I feel like this criterion is maybe a bit weak and there should be some ideological essence of the Labour Party that you should agree with before joining, but I'm not sure it would be productive to pin down exactly what it was and I expect it strongly overlaps with "I want the Labour Party to do well" anyway)

For the avoidance of any doubt: don't be a "hit and run entryist", this post is not suggesting such a "scheme". If you're "indifferent or hostile to Labour Party politics" then I don't really know why you'd want to be part of the selection, and don't recommend you try and join as a member.

The post says "You can always cancel your membership (though of course I'd rather you'd stay a member)." That's not advocating joining just to cancel - it's saying you're not bound in if you change your mind.


Forgive me, but your post didn't exactly avoid any doubt, given:

1) The recommendation in the second paragraph is addressed to everyone regardless of political sympathy:

We believe that, if you're a UK citizen or have lived in the UK for the last year, you should pay £4.38 to register to vote in the current Labour leadership, so you can help decide 1 of the 2 next candidates for Prime Minister. (My emphasis)

2) Your OP itself gives a few reasons for why those "indifferent or hostile to Labour Party politics" would want to be part of the selection. As you say:

For £4.38, you have a reasonable chance of determining the next candidate PM, and therefore having an impact in the order of billions of pounds. (Your emphasis)

Even a committed conservative should have preferences on "conditional on Labour winning in the next GE, which Labour MP would I prefer as PM?" (/plus the more Machiavellian "who is the candidate I'd most want leading Labour, given I want them to lose to the Conservatives?").

3) Although the post doesn't advocate joining just to cancel after voting, noting that one can 'cancel any time', alongside the main motivation being offered taking advantage of a time-limited opportunity for impact (and alongside the quoted cost being a single month of membership) makes this strategy not a dazzling feat of implicature (indeed, it would be the EV-maximising option taking the OP's argument at face value).

#

Had the post merely used the oncoming selection in Labour to note there is an argument for political party participation similar to voting (i.e. getting a say in the handful of leading political figures); clearly stressed this applied across the political spectrum (and so was more a recommendation that EAs consider this reason to join the party they are politically sympathetic in expectation of voting in future leadership contests, rather than the one which happens to have a leadership contest on now); and strenuously disclaimed any suggestion of hit and run entryism (noting defection for various norms with existing members of the party, membership mechanisms being somewhat based on trust that folks aren't going to 'game them', etc.), I would have no complaints. But it didn't (although I hope it will), so here we are.

Have included a paragraph up at the top that hopefully adresses (some of?) your concerns. As it says in the paragraph, thanks for your comments!

"Edit: This argument applies across the political spectrum. One of the best arguments for political party participation is similar to voting i.e. getting a say in the handful of leading political figures. We recommend that effective altruists consider this as a reason to join the party they are politically sympathetic towards in expectation of voting in future leadership contests. We're involved in the Labour Party - and Labour currently has a leadership election with only a week left to register to participate. So this post focuses on that as an example, and with a hope that if you're Labour-sympathetic you consider registering to participate. We definitely do not suggest registering to participate if you're not Labour-sympathetic. Don't be a 'hit and run entryist' (Thanks Greg for the comments!)."

Thanks. I think it would be better, given you are recommending joining and remaining in the party, the 'price' isn't quoted as a single month of membership.

One estimate could be the rate of leadership transitions. There have been ~17 in the last century of the Labour party (ignoring acting leaders). Rounding up, this gives an expected vote for every 5 years of membership, and so a price of ~£4.38*60 = ~£250 per leadership contest vote. This looks a much less attractive value proposition to me.

I actually thought the "of course I'd rather you'd stay a member" part was odd, since nowhere in the post up to that point had you said anything to indicate that you supported Labour yourself. The post doesn't say anything about whether Labour itself is good or bad, or whether that should factor into your decision to join it at all, but in this comment it sounds like those are crucial questions for whether this step is right or not.

I think this is likely too critical of this approach, given that this sort of thing already happens and works. Arguably, the mass-joining of Labour by Momentum is exactly 'entryism' of this sort. Such entryism was perhaps in bad faith, but conspicuously (a) this does seem to have changed the UK political landscape and (b) there haven't been serious attempts to stop it. I don't have a strong view on this, but it doesn't seem unreasonable for someone to claim "this happens anyway, it won't make things worse if we do it, we might as well do it too".

I agree that this strategy goes against the spirit of party membership, and I'm sympathetic to norm-subscription in a lot of contexts. But are norms a weightier consideration than the reasons for taking up the strategy outlined by OP? While it's true that these vulnerabilities might eventually be closed, it might still be good to exploit them while they're open.

To what extent do you think the relatively small numbers of EAs taking advantage of this strategy will sow mistrust? To me it doesn't seem like it will make a lot of difference, and indeed there might be some positive signalling to be gained if people think that engaging in strategies like this is cool and smart. It might make Labour supporters look more intellectual.

(I upvoted your comment because it was an original contribution made in the spirit of curiosity, even though I doubt its suggestions.)

In my experience watching people comment on political strategies that bring terms like "hacking" to mind, most don't see it as especially "cool". 

I've seen people react skeptically even to ideas like "vote pairing", which is used to get around the oft-derided kludge of the U.S. electoral college and doesn't necessarily harm any particular party or interest. Voting in the leadership election if one isn't an active Labour supporter seems like an effort to dilute the values of active Labour supporters, which I don't see as very appealing to... active Labour supporters.

I agree with Haydn that this seems like a reasonable thing to do if you actively want Labour to have more influence and you think the cost is worth it (though I don't have an opinion on the cost/benefit model in the post), but I'm with Greg on this not seeming very ethical if you aren't a "sincere supporter".

Interesting point of comparison: the Conservative Party has ~35% as many members, and had held government ~60% more often over the last 100 years, so the Leverage per member is ~4.5x higher. Although for many people, their ideology would mean they cannot credibly be involved in one or the other party.

This seems unlikely to be a useful tie-break in most cases, provided one can switch membership. UK party leadership elections are rarely contemporaneous [1] (unlike in the US), so the likelihood of a given party member being able to realise their leverage will generally differ by more than a factor of 4.5x at any given time.

[1] Conservatives: 1975, 1990, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2019

Labour: 1980, 1983, 1992, 1994, 2010, 2015, 2016, 2020

Hmm, but is it good or sustainable to repeatedly switch parties?

Sorry I should have disclaimed that I don't think this is a sensible strategy, and that people should approach party membership in good faith (for roughly the reasons Greg outlines above). Thanks for prompting me to clarify this.

My comment was just to point out that timing is an important factor in leverage-per-member.

I have to wonder whether EAs voting on the Labour leadership is positive in expectation. A priori, I would have expected it would be, but to my surprise, the EAs I know personally whose views on Labour politics I also know have not (in my view) had generally better views, been more thoughtful or more informed than the average Labour party members (I have been a Labour party member for some years). Nor have their substantive views seemed better to me, though of course this is more controversial (and this fact leads me to reduce my confidence in my own views considerably). Notably, the above is drawing from a reference class of people who were already quite engaged with Labour politics, things may be different (and perhaps worse) for the class of EAs who were not Labour party members, but who were persuaded their vote would be valuable by a forum post.

It also seems possible that votes by EAs generally being positive in expectation holds true for general elections, where choices are more stark and there is generally more consensus among EAs, and their votes are being compared against a wider reference class, but does not hold for more select votes about more nuanced issues, comparing against groups of relatively engaged and informed voters.

Very much agree with this. Also worth noting that First Past the Post, which favours a 2-party system, means that there is a greater need for pragmatism when seeking political influence. I.e. most voters will have to engage with a party that doesn't reflect their views well, compared to under PR. So those who wish not to join Labour for ideological reasons should consider that a level of pragmatism is required in FPTP.

I think it would be good if people could explain why they found my comment so disagreeable

I didn't downvote it, but it does come across as quite uncooperative/antagonistic toward other groups who are trying to do some good in this world, and I'm generally against that on the Forum.

Thanks for taking the time to try and explain. I'm really surprised at your description of my comment, however. In fact I'm so surprised that I wonder if my comment was badly misunderstood. Did people think that by saying "it might make Labour supporters seem more intellectual" that I was saying "Labour supporters are/seem stupid"? I didn't mean that at all. I've voted Labour in the last two general elections.

Or was there something else in my comment that seemed antagonistic?

No, I don't think it seemed anti-Labour. I just think anyone who's not super committed to consequentialism is going to be uncomfortable with this:

"While it's true that these vulnerabilities might eventually be closed, it might still be good to exploit them while they're open."

A lot of people who are involved in EA just don't ever want to "exploit vulnerabilities" in well-meaning groups of people (which you suggested might be a good idea depending on the consequences)

For what it's worth, I think it was pretty much a model EA Forum comment and am disappointed that people downvoted it so strongly. It seemed to be doing the difficult and valuable thing of "trying to work out what is actually the best thing to do" and met all the default commenting guidelines. It also didn't come across to me as at all antagonistic.